Who was Ellen Corby?

She was an actress with over 265 acting credits to her name, but Ellen Corby probably stays remembered as Esther Walton, or just ‘Grandma’ in the family drama series “The Waltons”, which brought her three Primetime Emmys for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Drama. Speaking of Ellen’s awards, many didn’t know that she was nominated for the Academy Award (Best Actress in a Supporting Role) for her portrayal of Aunt Trina in the 1948 drama “I Remember Mama”. When she died, her fans across the country were in mourning.

Before we tell you all about what happened to Ellen, let’s take a look at her career and the interesting life of this legendary actress.

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Early life, family, and education

Born Ellen Hansen under the zodiac sign of Gemini on 3 June 1911, in Racine, Wisconsin USA, so held American nationality, although she was a daughter of Danish immigrants. Most of her childhood Ellen spent in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, raised by her parents about whom nothing is known, and also there is no record of her siblings (if she had any).

When it comes to Ellen’s educational background, she attended a local high school in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she developed an interest in acting, performing in the school’s productions, and filming one short movie. Upon matriculating in 1929, Ellen didn’t go to college but briefly worked as a chorus girl. In 1932, Ellen moved to Hollywood, California where she landed a job as a script girl, serving in this position for the next 12 years, concurrently taking acting lessons.

Acting career-beginnings

Ellen made her acting debut in the 1928 short movie “Buster’s Big Chance”, followed by her role as Serbian Peasant in the 1933 movie “Storm at Daybreak”. In the following years, until 1936, Ellen had numerous supporting roles, some of them uncredited.

After almost a decade, in 1945, she returned to the big screen as Swiss Maid in “Cornered”, which was her first noticed role, followed by her role as Mrs Barnes in the 1946 western “The Scarlet Horseman”, directed by Lewis D. Collins.

Ellen was next seen in over 10 movies, mostly playing support roles of maids, secretaries, or waitresses; just to name a few – “The Truth About Murder” (1946), “The Long Nights” (1947), and “The Fabulous Joe”, also in 1947.

In the following year, she landed her most significant movie role as Aunt Trina Halvorsen in “I Remember Mama”, which besides the aforementioned Oscar nomination, brought Ellen the Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The movie, starring Irene Dunne, Oscar Homolka and Barbara Bel Geddes, followed the story of a young writer growing up in San Francisco, California alongside her three siblings, raised by their Norwegian immigrant parents.

Although she gained success and fame, in the following years, Ellen continued playing supporting roles, and was seen in “Caged” (1950), “Here Comes the Groom” (1951), “Fearless Fagan” (1952), and “A Lion Is in the Streets” (1953).

Concurrently, she made her first TV series appearance, as Rosa Peterson in less than five episodes of the series “Stars Over Hollywood” (1950-1951), and then as Aunt Ellen in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (1952-1953).

In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Ellen appeared in over 30 movies, however, none of her roles were major or lead roles. Also, her television roles were guest or recurring, seen only in an episode or two, except her portrayal of Henrietta Porter in 24 episodes of the western series “Trackdown” (1957-1959), in which she starred opposite Robert Culp and Norman Leavitt. Although the show had no nominations, it was well-rated by the audience.

Most notable roles

Since the list of Ellen’s roles is too long, we’ll highlight a few of her most notable. Worth mention is her role as Soho Sal in the 1961 comedy-drama “Pocketful of Miracles”, which was nominated for three Oscars (Best Music, Original Song, Best Costume Design, Color, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role – Peter Falk).

Two years later, Ellen was seen in another Oscar-nominated movie, “The Caretaker”, a drama about mentally-ill patients and their caregivers, starring Diane McBain, Polly Bergen and Robert Stack. The movie had five award nominations, including an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.

From 1966 through 1970, Ellen had the recurring role of Mrs Anderson in the then-hit crime drama series “The F.B.I.” In the following year came Ellen’s most notable movie role, when she was cast to play Esther Walton in “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story”, which was a kind of pilot for the upcoming series, “The Waltons”.

From 1972 through 1980, Ellen played her most recognized role as Grandma in “The Waltons”, which besides the aforementioned Primetime Emmys, earned her the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Television in 1974; she was two more times nominated for the same award, in 1975 and ‘77.

The show, also starring Mary Beth McDonough, Jon Walmsley and Eric Scott, followed the story of the lives and trials of a Virginia mountain family during the ’30s and ’40s, through financial depression and World War II. It had 53 award nominations and 20 wins, including 13 Primetime Emmys.

In the early ‘80s, Ellen reprised her role in the TV movies “The Waltons: A Decade of the Waltons” (1980), “A Wedding on Walton’s Mountain” (1982), and “A Day for Thanks on Walton’s Mountain”, also in 1982.

Almost a decade later, Ellen was again seen as Grandma Walton in the 1993 TV movie “A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion”, reprising her role in “A Walton Wedding” in 1995. Her last appearance was in the 1997 TV movie “A Walton Easter”.

Love life and husband

When she came to Hollywood, Ellen met her future husband, Francis Corby. The two worked together at Hal Roach Studios, since Francis was a cinematographer. He was 20 years older than Ellen, however, it seems that their romance was stronger than the age gap between them. They married in 1934, and this love story lasted for ten years, but ended in divorce; the couple didn’t have children together.

In the early ‘50s, Ellen met Stella Luchetta, her long-term partner, as the two lived together from 1954 until Ellen’s death. Although the two never confirmed publicly that they were a couple, there was speculations about their relationship – Ellen presented Stella as her ‘special friend’, and their relationship was an open secret. When Ellen died, Stella continued to live in Ellen’s house.

When and how did Ellen die? Death Cause

Ellen suffered a stroke in 1976, and Will Geer, her co-star from “The Waltons” may have saved her life then. Ellen was known as a true professional who was never late, and when she didn’t show up at the set, Will alarmed the show’s producer who immediately went to Ellen’s house, and discovered that she’d suffered a stroke. Luckily, Ellen recovered and returned to filming the series in March 1978.

The news about Ellen’s death made the headlines on 14 April 1999. She died of natural causes in the hospital in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, aged 87, and was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, California.

Wealth – how rich was Ellen Corby?

As mentioned, Ellen had numerous roles, but most of them didn’t bring her Hollywood fame or enormous wealth. The role that brought her recognition and the one that was highest paid, was her role as Grandma in “The Waltons”.

According to sources, at the time of her death, Ellen had a net worth estimated at nearly $1 million.

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